A couple of weeks ago while watching a clip of “Saturday Night Live”, a segment including Leslie Jones impressed me. She went on a rant about Black history. Jones exclaimed, “Here’s my issue: We cram all of Black history into just one month. All we have time for is that George Washington Carver and all of his peanut stuff. We should learn all of Black history, all the year round, and teach it to everybody.”
Jones has a valid point. When I was a high school student back in the late 1960s, very little significant black subject matter was taught. There was the obligatory George Washington Carver material. Of course, the abomination of slavery was integrated into the Civil War portion of American History textbooks. There was a short mention of Rosa Parks’ bus ride. Also, because the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior was still a current event, we learned about his life. Those were the main things I remember regarding Black history from those days.
Even though we did learn about Rosa Parks, we were only taught that she refused to give up her seat to a white passenger on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. History class did not tell us that Parks was an activist for other causes, such as how she organized people against sexual assault.
When we think of Black History Month, it might be remembered that Black history has traditionally been relegated to “the back of the bus”, so to speak. Teaching black children, in general, has been given the back seat in general education.
During the days of slavery, it was a serious crime to teach slaves how to read and write. It was understood that when people have literacy skills, they can investigate and speak out about important issues. Ignorance is a strong barrier to freedom. It hasn’t been that many years since black kids were still required to attend different schools than white kids. Racially segregated schools were the norm in most states of the old Confederacy and several in the North, well into the 20th century.
The creation of Black History Month came about to address the problem of ignorance about African-Americans’ contributions to the United States. Dr. Carter Woodson advocated “Negro History Week” in 1926. He selected the second week of February because it contains the birthdays of two men who positively affected black Americans–Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
“Negro History Week” eventually evolved into “Black History Week” and then expanded into “Black History Month”, because there is so much more to Black history than Douglass, and Lincoln.
Finally, as many scholars and people like Leslie Jones have said, it’s finally time to integrate black history with American History. Until that happens, we can all enjoy our own investigations and learn about African-American history during Black History Month.